Chinatown is the devil on the shoulder of Philadelphia's Center City. By: Jason Sheehan

June 10, 2013
Jason Varney

It's the place you go to stay out late and sing too loud. It's compact and crowded, and smells of a million things. To spend time there is to find a strange second heart of the city—an organ that kicks into life after dark, loud with sizzling neon, Sriracha, and overproof rum.

At Ting Wong, the regulars forgo the menu and order the incredible Hong Kong noodles. On 10th Street, the light and the heat pour out of the windows at Penang, where the wise order two Tsing Taos and two orders of the wisp-thin, impossibly crisp roti canai and then ask what everyone else at the table will be eating and drinking.

On Race Street, behind an unmarked door in what appears to be an abandoned storefront, hides one of the greatest cocktail bars in America—Hop Sing Laundromat, where a thousand bottles sleep on the bar and a thousand stories about its enigmatic owner, Lee, flavor every breath. Order the maddeningly simple (it's made of nothing more than 15-year-old El Dorado rum and fresh-squeezed grape juice), brilliantly balanced Henry "Box" Brown. That's just wisdom.

When you're done, Chinatown will still be waiting outside, neon burning, as you stumble off into the night for karaoke and salt-crusted shrimp at Shiao Lan Kung or noodles and the late-night scene at David's Mai Lai Wah. Eventually, dawn will chase you home.